A Tribute to Matthew T. Mbu
By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when the news of Ambassador Matthew Tawo Mbu’s death slapped me from the online edition of the ‘National Mirror’ newspaper. When I digested the information shock gave way to a deep sense of loss.
At eighty-two Mbu’s achievements in and out of public office are worthy of memoirs and biographies. He lived a long full life. Indeed he may be regarded as synonymous with Nigeria’s post-colonial evolution. So ordinarily his passing deserves to be celebrated, though human grief is inevitable.
But my sense of loss at his exit is rooted in the only encounter I had with him in September 2010. It was just a one-day encounter but an eye-opener for me. It was a tour of Nigeria’s chequered history.
The September 5 edition of ‘The Nation’ newspaper, as part of its databank collection to celebrate Nigeria’s fiftieth independence anniversary, published its interview with Matthew Mbu, Nigeria’s first high commissioner to the UK and a veteran of many ministerial portfolios since the 1950s. In the course of the interview the journalist asked Mbu when he was going to publish his memoirs. Clearly sensitive to the implications of such a question for a man like him who had seen the good, the bad and the ugly up close in successive Nigerian governments, Mbu gave the reply which was to echo long after it was made like the report of a gun fired from a mountain top: ‘I don’t know. Sometimes I think I should just go away with some of the information. But I have been putting together a memoir on the events I witnessed or had first hand information unknown to many. For example, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was not killed as some people wrote. Christopher Okigbo, who was close to the military boys, told me what really happened. He said when Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna led others to arrest the Prime Minister they were not to kill him. He was to be taken to Calabar prison to release Awolowo and also announce that he has handed over to them. That was all the military wanted from him. It was in the car, even before they left Lagos that the late Prime Minister suffered an asthma attack and he died.’
That apparently innocuous information sparked off a fierce controversy which Mbu did not anticipate. The coup of January 15 1966 which overthrew Balewa’s government remains a very sore wound nearly fifty years after it occurred. Many notable Nigerians got into the fray and the question ‘How did Balewa die?’ became the hottest topic in town.
One of such notables was Femi Fani-Kayode, the highly intelligent son of Fani-Kayode, the deputy Premier of the old Western region in the 1960s. The senior Fani-Kayode was arrested by a group of the coup plotters under the command of Captain Emmanuel Nwora Nwobosi. Not surprisingly, the younger Fani-Kayode upheld the widely accepted historical version of Balewa’s death in his widely published article ‘Who Killed Balewa?’ that he was shot by the coup plotters. But while he was not expected to be gentle with the soldiers who truncated a system from which he benefitted Femi Fani-Kayode’s perspectives on Balewa’s death and his portrayal of Mbu set me thinking. I wrote an article on Mbu’s revelation and Kayode’s reaction which was published in ‘Sunday Vanguard’ newspaper of 12 September 2010 and some websites, namely, pointblanknews.com and nigeriansinamerica.com. I was motivated by my abiding interest in Nigeria’s history between 1960 and 1970; a desire to shed light on dark corners of Nigeria’s evolution and a quest for civil though heated debate. But frankly I did not expect the article to draw Mbu’s attention to the extent that he sent me an e-mail through his PA for a discussion on the points raised in the article. I honoured the invitation on 17 September 2010 with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation.
The Ambassador did not radiate the haughty, power-soaked persona associated with most of Nigeria’s elite. Maybe it had to do with breeding. Perhaps it was because he was a product of a sadly gone era when those who sought to govern us first governed themselves. His courtesy, urbanity and posh British accent wowed me. His concern about the difficulty I had locating his house was touching. He wondered why I had not told him on the phone about it; he would have sent a car to my place. He displayed a fecund intellect throughout our discussion which like Plato’s ‘Republic’ ranged beyond the original subject.
Rather doubtful about the reliability of Okigbo’s account, I sought to know how well Mbu knew the acclaimed poet. To my surprise Mbu was intimate with the Okigbo brothers; renowned economist, late Pius Okigbo, and the younger, vivacious, radical but no less brilliant Christopher. Mbu’s ties with them predated the civil war; he said Pius believed his brother was closer to Mbu who could be a steadying influence on him. Mbu revealed that Chris Okigbo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Bola Ige were mates at the University of Ibadan.
On the question of an autopsy on Balewa, Mbu expressed strong reservations. According to him, the insinuation that his former colleague in Balewa’s government, ex-Health Minister/Balewa’s doctor, Moses Majekodunmi knew about the autopsy was fiction. Majekodunmi was in London when the coup occurred, according to the Ambassador.
Mbu conveyed the impression that he was Balewa’s favourite ‘son’ and he would be the last person to talk dishonourably about his benefactor. He gave me insights into foreign missions he executed on behalf of the Nigerian government though he was not the Foreign Affairs Minister under Balewa. Notable among them was the Arms Reduction Treaty of 1962 following the US-former Soviet Union face-off that nearly plunged the world into war. Nigeria contributed in no small measure in shaping that treaty. Mbu told me he was popular with the British because of his impeccable grooming and was nicknamed the golden boy of the Commonwealth by his colleagues. Small wonder he won the heart of the moderate, pro-West Prime Minister.
His recollections about Nigeria’s first coup were vivid. As a junior Minister of Defence he had gone to Kaduna to open an Air Force base on 5 January 1966. In the officers’ mess he clearly heard officers, including his friend, Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun, talking openly about shooting the members of the government for corruption. Ademulegun reportedly assured a frightened Mbu that the officers did not have him on their ‘hit’ list. Likely targets included Festus Okotie-Eboh, the Finance Minister, whom the military accused of corruption. There were allegations that he took ten percent of fees as kickbacks on contracts and the money went to the coffers of the NCNC, one of the ruling parties. Mbu who was NCNC’s treasurer denied that the party got such money. Whether it went into Okotie-Eboh’s pocket is beyond my knowledge. But the corruption of the First Republic, though child’s play compared to what currently goes on in Nigeria, is well documented.
Interestingly, Mbu told me that the then Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu informed him that the military officers had investigated the bank accounts of the members of the Balewa government and only he (Mbu) was given a ‘clean bill of health’ i.e. he was free from the corruption virus.
Mbu’s efforts to warn Balewa, Dr. Michael Okpara, the Eastern Region Premier and the Sardauna, Ahmadu Bello, were ignored. In retrospect why did they not listen? Was Mbu not in the ‘inner’ caucus? The Ambassador’s comment, published in ‘The Nation’ interview, that if Alhaji Ribadu, the Defence Minister were alive he would have convinced Balewa gives some credence to this line of thought. Ribadu died in 1965.
Some writers on the first coup hint that there were plots overtaken by the Ifeajuna/Nzeogwu coup. Was Ademulegun, a victim of that coup, involved in another plot and thus obliquely warning a friend? What was Ojukwu’s business investigating the accounts of government officials? His actions in the aftermath of the 1964 general elections when he called a conference of Nigerian officers to find who they owed allegiance to in the wake of the political crisis at that time have never been fully explained. While his antagonists believe Ojukwu was up to no good, others like Forsyth think he was forestalling a breakdown of army command. To the best of my knowledge the Ikemba never gave us his own version before God called him home.
Mbu was delegated to represent Balewa at Prime Minister Nehru of India’s burial on the eve of the coup. In London, en-route to India, he learnt of the coup and wisely stayed back although Majekodunmi suggested they return home. Mbu reasoned that with the overthrow of the government in what capacity would they be returning?
A minority Cross Rivers man by birth, the Ambassador disagreed that the first coup was an Igbo plot to dominate Nigeria. He was emphatic that throughout the First Republic there was widespread discontent in the military and it was not exclusive to Igbo officers. Following Okotie-Eboh’s arrest the soldiers went after Kingsley Mbadiwe, an Igbo Minister. According to Mbu, only Mbadiwe’s comic antics saved him. Compare this account with Forsyth’s in his book ‘The Biafra Story’ in which he states that Mbadiwe hid in the State House area which the plotters did not search because its official occupant, President Nnamdi Azikiwe, was overseas. Mbu’s account of the coup in the east contradicts that of the ‘Igbo plot’ purveyors. It seems to corroborate those of Adewale Ademoyega and Ben Gbulie who actively participated in the coup. As Mbu told me (and it was also published in ‘The Nation’ interview), the soldiers nearly shot Michael Okpara for refusing to alight from his car. It took the intervention of Sir Francis Akanu Ibiam, the Eastern Region governor, to save his life.
Maybe Mbu’s biggest bombshell to shatter the myth of an Igbo coup were his views on the role of Major Hassan Usman Katsina, the Northern Region military governor in Ironsi’s regime. The officer, a prince of the Katsina ruling house, was according to Mbu, openly on Nzeogwu’s side throughout the brief period he held sway in Kaduna. He gave interviews supporting the coup. This point is interesting for some reasons.
Some writers on the January 1966 coup state that Nzeogwu used unorthodox measures to get Katsina’s support (see pages 21-22 of Madiebo’s The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.’). Others like Ademoyega argue that Katsina’s support was reluctant. In ‘Emeka’, Forsyth’s biography of Ojukwu, he states that Katsina was Nzeogwu’s right-hand man but when the coup failed, he claimed he was coerced into backing the plot. One can read about the encounter between Nzeogwu and Katsina’s wife on 10 January 1966 at Kaduna airport (Madiebo p.15). Nzeogwu and Katsina were friends but this is not a basis for concluding that the Northern prince was involved. He represented the establishment the majors hated and struck at. Maybe he acted the way he did to safeguard his head. It is doubtful if he could have mustered forces to stop Nzeogwu.
Against the backdrop of invectives Mbu received for his ‘revelation’ he made a significant statement during our discussion. It revealed the root of his problem with sections of his fellow ruling elite. ‘I refused to speak for them when they killed their brothers. I cannot be part of you when you wipe out a race out of sheer hatred.’ The statement, viewed against the backdrop of the massacres of Eastern Nigerians, especially the Igbo following the July 1966 coup, set Mbu out as pro- Biafra. Indeed he was Ojukwu’s Foreign Affairs Minister during the civil war. But history is not so clear cut. Mbu told me that Ojukwu nearly put him in detention. To my eternal regret I did not ask him why the Biafran head of state contemplated slinging his Foreign Affairs Minister in jail. But I can hazard a guess supported by the political dynamics of Biafra.
From all indications Mbu was a political moderate. Within the context of Nigeria of those turbulent times that implied he wanted a structure that would accommodate all Nigerians equally and justly. Secession should not be a power-seeking exercise. When one looks at Mbu’s antecedents-a member of Zik’s initially pan-Nigerian NCNC; an urbane diplomat exposed to sophisticated political systems that embrace multi-cultural entities and a well-read lawyer-it is hard to believe that he embraced Nigeria’s breakup joyfully. John de St. Jorre, in his book, ‘The Brothers’ War,’ argued that in the course of the war distinct camps emerged in the Biafran establishment. One was made up of ‘hawks’ who held the trigger. Any negotiation with the Nigerians that included demands excluding an independent Biafra was tantamount to treason. Ojukwu led this group with top officials like C.C. Mojekwu. Then there were the ‘doves’ who were troubled by Biafrans’ suffering and were open to talks that would not humiliate Biafra, yet left open possibilities of some loose association with Nigeria. Louis Mbanefo, Biafra’s chief justice, was one of the top members of this group. Probably Mbu belonged to this group. His minority, non-Igbo status would only heighten suspicion of him in the eyes of the dominant hawks who would remember how the different perspectives in the Biafran establishment probably led to the Banjo/Ifeajuna plot of 1967. I hasten to state that these are my observations and may not necessarily involve Mbu.
The Ambassador’s sorrow over the satanic days of the 1966 massacres was obvious as he gave insights. He could not understand the blame game that pits the Igbo as architects of that dark time. As an aside he narrated how he ensured that Chinua Achebe got a job at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, after fleeing Lagos from the July 1966 coup plotters who believed that his novel ‘A Man of the People’ was a blueprint for the first coup. Mbu thought the novelist was too brainy to be a bureaucrat hence he got him into the academia.
For all his urbanity, Mbu did not excuse the British from Nigeria’s woes. He was emphatic that General Welby-Everard, the last British General Officer Commanding of the Nigerian army knew about the plots, being privy to his men’s dark mutterings, yet did nothing about them.
I came away from the discussion enlightened and troubled about the road Nigeria had travelled and was still travelling. But the controversy over Balewa’s death was far from over. Even as Segun Osoba, the ex-journalist who discovered Balewa’s body, got involved in the debate tempers went from red-hot to white-hot. What ought to be a historical engagement began to open old and new political wounds. ‘The Nation’ ran a detailed serialization of its investigation into the Balewa question and the first coup in September and October 2010. In my second article on the subject, published in ‘Sunday Vanguard’ of October 3 2010, I called for an intellectual approach.
Mbu acted as a father and statesman to assuage the hurt of his mentor’s family. He could have fought his detractors who totally missed the point of his comments; he had not set out to rewrite history; he only had Okigbo’s account and he never claimed the last word. But Nigeria needs peace so he published an apology in ‘The Nation’ of 10 October 2010. It was a call to ceasefire and it proved beyond all doubt the manner of man the Ambassador was.
I respected that call but till date I believe the history of January 15 1966 might not be what we generally know and till we do, Nigeria might know no peace for the old ghosts and prejudice will continue to haunt us. I wish Mbu published his memoirs. Indeed the Malian wise men were right when they declared: ‘Each time an old man dies a library is burnt.’
Henry C. Onyema is a Lagos-based writer and historian. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org